Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.
Keywords: ISIS, ISIS funding, Ummayad Caliphate, Toynbee, South Asia Nuclear Stability
The Universal State: The Last-Gasp Opportunism of Power
Belief in the immortality of a ‘Universal State’ has in history periodically evoked those very ghosts that had established the State’s mortality causing their decay and expiry. The fall of the Ummayad Caliphate in Damascus at the hands of the Abbasids, only for the former to supplant itself on the Iberian peninsula and draw roots in Cordoba; the Abbasid Caliphates shock overthrow when Baghdad fell to the Mongols was resuscitated in the Fatamids Caliphs of Tunisia and the rise of the Ottoman Empire under whose suzerainty the Caliphate survived till its death at the hands of westernization are illustrative of the degeneration, reinvention and last-gasp opportunism of power.
The Flawed Revelation
While this selection has been uncovered from Islamic history, the truth is equally appropriate to other civilizations. To our study it is the causes of this rhythmic phenomenon that is of greater significance, even as our focus remains on the idea of the Caliphate. The first manifest reason is the ideological imprint that the founders of the Islamic Universal State cast on its adherents as contemporary historical truth was imposed on an overwhelming religious legend. The second branch of the root lay in the genius and impressiveness of its leaders. Lastly, the fact that the inspiration of the Universal State was built around past glories captivates the heart and minds as it embodies a rally from the rout of a ‘time of troubles’ (Toynbee, A Study of History). The universality of the state was therefore not just a geographical idea or a final impulse to brazen out decay of a civilisation but more a flawed revelation in the minds of the faithful.
The current turmoil in West Asia may be traced to the aberrant imposition of a Western order in the aftermath of the defeat and collapse of the Ottomans and the eventual denial of the idea of a Caliphate by its leadership. The Caliphate, which had lost its religious and civilizational magnetism, was substituted by a mosaic of states that was mandated more by the promise of colonial influence and economic profit. This led to a situation when the underlying antagonism and economic dispossession have erupted in aggression and a yearning for a return to the Universal State.
Disruptive Nature of the Islamic State
The Islamic State (IS, varyingly called the ISIS or the ISIL) has swept from Syria into Iraq in a maelstrom of destruction and has in a short but bloody campaign laid waste to the northern third of Iraq. No political Islam or civilizational impulse here, just rabid intolerance. In its wake it has disrupted the correlation of political forces in the region as the US seek a quick blocking entente with Iran; Syria sees in the situation an opportunity to settle scores with the insurgency raging within; Shia organisations find common cause to offset the IS; Sunni States carry a cloaked bias towards the IS to the extent that a recent New York Times report suggests funding by Turkey, Saudi and Qatar; terrorist organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan welcome the new leadership that has displaced al-Qaeda and Kurdistan has been catapulted to the forefront of opposition to the IS.
Distressing Probability of Nuclear Reach
As the fanatical outburst of xenophobia stretches south and eastward the IS’ influence will in due course manifest in the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan today, as many perceptive analysts have noted, represents a very dangerous condition as its establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the IS into the sub-continent underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. The impending withdrawal of US forces from the region will only serve to catalyse such a calamitous scenario.
Sustaining the Richest Terrorist Group
Ideologically the IS is driven by little other than a deep rooted malevolence (towards the US in particular) for the near quarter century of armed turmoil and sectarian carnage that has visited the region without near term hopes for restoration. The fallout has been a demonizing of plurality and a fierce rejection of modernity. Resurgence of the banished Iraqi Republican Guard has provided muscle to the movement and the revival of the Baathist faction infused a much needed organisational framework to the IS. The feeble capitulation of the 350,000 US trained Iraqi security forces stands testimony to the vigour of the enterprise. The seizure of over 400,000 pieces of small arms, artillery munitions, the pillaging of USD $430 million from the Central Bank of Mosul and the creation of a self sustaining financial flow to fuel the movement would suggest the work of trained minds and the organisational precision of professionals; besides it also makes the IS the richest militant group in West Asia.
Timing of the fierce advent of the IS and its leadership of the movement to establish a new Caliphate is distinctly ominous. The West in a state of economic exhaustion, militarily fatigued, geo-politically starved of ideas and facing the prospects of a world order being put in disarray by a revisionist China; neither has the stomach nor the resolve to block the onslaught. The only check on the abuse of unconventional and maleficent power has always consisted in opposition by an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming a league of defence; unfortunately such an alliance has not been formed.
Conclusion: Development of a Strategy
When Toynbee suggested the emergence of a Universal State he saw in it disintegration of a civilization as it encountered disastrous ‘time of troubles’, such as wars within and without followed by the establishment of a universal state-an empire in the throes of decay. Ultimately the universal state collapses. The menacing feature of the Islamic State is that the end of a ruinous historical rhythm is synchronised today with the draw down of an external enforcing dynamic and the intolerable availability of weapons of mass destruction.
In such circumstances the prognosis can only be a universal catastrophe unless a three pronged strategy is put in place:
• Firstly arrest the rampage of the IS by a coalition of regional forces under UN aegis.
• Secondly, choke the money flow both from patron States and the IS’ financial dealings by targeting beneficiaries.
• Thirdly, deny access to weapons of mass destruction through rigorous guardianship of known sources.